Problems with cultural pride — if you’re white.

As I write this, Beth’s daughter (again, my not-quite-step-daughter) is in NYC taking part of the protests going on there. I’ve got various news sites running in the background. I’ve touched base with her before the march began, and I’ve been up and down all night, sick to my stomach with worry. She’s with her boyfriend, whom we haven’t met, and whose skin color I do not know. I found myself torn between hoping she was with him — because the idea of her being with a man potentially provides her additional security that being with a bunch of girlfriends may not provide — and hoping she wasn’t — because what sort of attention may she receive if she’s with a black man? We are proud that she’s involving herself with these very important protests, but I still want to curl up and cry, I still want to vomit, I’m still running a constant plea to my gods and our ancestors that they watch over her, that they keep her safe, that all will be well. I still want to bundle her up and make her go home. At the least, I want to be with her, watching her back. Instead, I’m three thousand miles away, waiting on pins and needles until she texts me to update me, as I’ve made her promise to.

My privilege is not lost on me, in this instance. I catch my thoughts — wanting her to be with a man, but not wanting her to be with a man that might become a target — and I hold them as proof that things need to change. Things need to change, and there’s no amount of “white pride isn’t racism” bullshit that’s going to convince me otherwise.

Specifically within Heathenry, specifically from the more folkish groups, what others recognize as racism is defended with cries of cultural pride. Why is it okay, we’re asked, for African Americans to express cultural pride, but we are not? Why is it wrong for us to want to restrict membership to our group based on ethnicity, but not for these other people?

As I see it coming from a decidedly Heathen worldview, there are two reasons. The first is, we are not on a level playing field. All men are not equal, all people are not held to be equally important, and until that is corrected any case being built upon “it should be the same for everyone” does not apply.

The second reason? Orlog, wyrd, and how they work.

We talk big game about honoring our ancestors. We talk a great deal about honoring their accomplishments, about praising them, about building up upon the shoulders of those who have come before. Way back when I was new to the polytheistic realms, what I knew first about Heathenry, that stood out more than it stood out with the other groups I knew of, was ancestor veneration. (I know now that this is something many polytheistic groups have in common.) The ancestors were at least as important as the spirits and gods, and for some they were moreso. The thing that truly confuses me here is — of our ancestors did horrible things. In my family we’ve had abusive people as well as people who protected and nourished and cared for those in need. My ancestral line going back? That’s going to be like that, only writ large — and so is yours, because our ancestors were first and foremost human, and creatures of their times. Some of those times were brutal.

People are territorial. They’re brutal in war, and conquest and invasion is part of the human story. Thing is, that doesn’t make it okay. We don’t get to say, “Oh, well, yeah, so the Europeans came over and decimated whole cultures of people — and it’s still going on — but that’s okay, because the Romans did the same, and Gengis Khan did the same. It’s just what we do.” Just because we are able to name conquering leaders or cultures from history does not mean we get to excuse the behavior of our immediate ancestors.
To make this personally relevant to me and my life: I’m pretty damned white. Oh, there’s some African blood that has turned up that one family member discovered via DNA testing (some people have money to burn) and we know of some Native American blood in the background, but that aside? Oh so very white. My ancestors hailed from Scotland, from England, from Ireland, from Germany. I can’t trace my family back beyond four generations, but that puts many of them already here in America. I think my most recent arrivals hailed from Germany, and they were here by the turn of the previous century. (Unless you count my paternal grandfather, who immigrated from Canada, but I don’t, because, Canada. For this discussion it’s just a colder, less populated version of the US.)

If we’re making the argument that blood matters, then I can’t dismiss the fact that blood of my blood was on both sides of WWII. It’s theoretical at this point — I don’t know of family in Germany, and who knows exactly where they may have stood during Hiltler’s reign? But if we’re using blood mattering to make a case for having cultural pride — I can feel as connected to the Germanic culture as I want, but I cannot divorce that culture from the wretchedness that Hitlter and his campaign created.

I’m heathen. I have blood on both sides of that war — and immediate ancestors who were US veterans of that war. I’m a heathen who incorporates symbols into my work and worship. The swastika is one of my go-to symbols for warding, but because I’m not an asshole, I will never wear it about, and I will never pretend that it does not have the cultural association that it has. Through Beth I have Jewish ancestors in my family’s ancestral house. All sides, y’all. All sides. But the evil that is genocide and my responsibility towards those harmed by such actions outweighs my right to publicly display a symbol that is part of my practice. I mourn what was done to so many of our holy symbols — but I don’t pretend it wasn’t done, and I don’t expect others closer to that hate and pain to be okay because I want to use that symbol. Do other, non-Europeans get to use the swastika without having to be mindful of that taint? Yes, they do. Is that fair? No, but as we’ve established already, the playing field isn’t leveled, so I suck it up and move on because I don’t want to be an asshole.

Neither can I divorce myself from the slave trade that my ancestors were a part of. Nor can I divorce myself from the bloody past of the continent I live on. These things all belong to my ancestors, and thus, they belong to me. No, I personally have never owned another human being. No, I personally have not shoved people off their land and taken their resources out of their hands. But my ancestors have. Your ancestors have. These things effect orlog, and they go into the weaving of our wyrd. We are our deeds — and we are also the deeds of our ancestors, like it or not.

It’s not about being punished for the sins of our fathers. It’s about being responsible, about right action. My father was an abusive alcoholic. Part of my responsibility in this life has been to break the cycle of abuse. Part of that has been educating myself on addictive personalities, the history of alcoholism, how it can destroy families, what co-dependency looks like, etc. This isn’t punishment. This is mindfulness, duty, and knowing that my father’s past, his life, and the lives of his ancestors is not divorced from my existence. This is understanding — or striving to understand — the relationship between orlog and wyrd. Part of taking responsibility is breaking the cycle of abuse — this applies culturally as much as it applies personally, and culturally in America right now, abuse is happening. It’s been built up by our ancestors — whether they were heathen or not — and it is our responsibility to break that cycle.

The day when the our society truly, truly becomes so-called ‘colorblind’ is the day that white Americans can cry “cultural pride!”, and deny people membership without being labeled racist. (Maybe. Probably not, because, dude, history. It happened.) Until that day happens, though, this is where we’re at. We’re heathen. Wyrd is a thing. How are we not supposed to be responsibly for making the wrongs of the past right?

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9 thoughts on “Problems with cultural pride — if you’re white.

  1. I had a conversation recently with my ancestors noting that I know racism was in the line and that it stopped with me. If I am aware of the inherent strengths and weaknesses in the line that I was born into this lifetime I can make that intent part of this lifetime’s work. I already see progress in my daughter as she breaks patterns that her father and I carry. Tricky and beautiful both, this incarnating and trying to gift the future with something better

  2. Great post- it’s important to distinguish however between being “white” and particular European ethnic identities. I often post this article when someone shows in a Celtic or Germanic themed group asking “why can’t I be proud of being white?” http://changefromwithin.org/2014/03/20/holding-the-tension/ We all have ancestors that have done good things and terrible things- the issue is how that affects you now and what you can do about it now- like you said breaking cycles of abuse. I am not an advocate for feeling overwhelming shame & guilt over the actions of one’s ancestors. Just for taking responsibility. And we should act out of justice & love, not guilt.

  3. Reblogged this on Wytch of the North and commented:
    I had intended to reblog this last weekend but was interrupted by a power outage and then (yay fibro brain!) kept forgetting to go back to it. Thank the gods, my daughter and her boyfriend got through the march safely, and I’m proud of her for going. Jo neglected to mention (I think?), but my daughter is of mixed race, and this is one reason why my own privilege is often invisible to me. While she was growing up, I lived in one of the most racially divided cities in the US (Philadelphia), and was married to a black man, her father. So I became used to being “othered” right along with them–treated more or less as though I too were black (at least when in their company). Even beyond that, my adoptive father was black, and I only found out I was adopted at the age of 18 (he was light-skinned, but even so, yes, I know it should have been obvious; I was a kid, what can I say?) So growing up, I didn’t think of myself as “white,” per se, despite the white face I saw in the mirror. But the fact that my privilege has remained largely invisible to me for most of my life doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that it doesn’t need to be examined. When I found out that I was adopted I also learned that I most likely have English and Scandinavian heritage through my birth parents. Am I proud of that? Hell, yeah. And I don’t think being proud of it is wrong. However, any kind of cultural pride on the part of white people like myself needs to be handled with extreme sensitivity, recognizing that yes, we DO bear responsibility for the deeds of our ancestors, just as we bear their genes.

    • Thinking you’re part black while looking very white isn’t as foolish as some people would think. It really isn’t outside the realm of possibilities. My daughter’s a quarter black and has fine straight blonde hair, blue eyes and is fairer than my husband (who’s incredibly white). Genetic are weird like that.

  4. This is a fantastic use of Orlog to explain the problem, thank you so much for making this connection!

    Do I believe that it’s writ in cosmic law that white people suck? Obviously not. But I do believe that it’s written in cosmic law that *cause begets effect*, and we don’t get to pretend otherwise just because it’s inconvenient to remember that we live in the world our ancestors shaped.

    I’ve explained Orlog and Wyrd to I don’t know how many friends, and made this argument in favor of sensitivity countless times, but for some bizzare reason it has not until reading this occurred to me to use the explanation of what Orlog IS to point out to fellow Heathens in particular why this sensitivity is not optional.

    THANK YOU!
    –Ember–

  5. I will say one other thing, and then I’ll post a reblog, which will make 3 comments in a row – sorry!

    > Do other, non-Europeans get to use the swastika without having to be mindful of that taint? Yes, they do. Is that fair? No…

    Actually, I think it IS fair, in that the Nazis were appropriating from Hindu traditions when they chose the symbol. I don’t support NEW or Revived use of Swastikas, but I don’t condemn continuation of uses that pre-date the Nazi appropriation of the symbol, and I think that is quite fair. I also think it’s mindful to consider abandoning it in modern use (though I *don’t* think we have any business expecting people to mar or destroy old monuments) because of how strong the associations with the Holocaust are today. That’s what the Dine (Navajo) are said to have done, and I think that’s quite admirable.

    -E-

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